May 23 2012

Into The Deep

I love the gothic, shadowed depths of a medieval dungeon or ruin. In fact, I was delighted to find a tea shop in the Christ Church Cathedral crypt, Dublin, down darkened stairs and wrapped in the muffled silence of stone and history and the tombs of saints. I pulled out my journal, and soaked in the delicious solitude. At least, that is, until the barista thought I would enjoy some American country music. The twangy lilt caused those same saints to turn over in their graves. Make it stop.

It didn’t. So I downed my tea and smiled pleasantly at the barista, leaving the depths to go to evening song upstairs. What I expected to be a simple service turned out to be a trip highlight. Two be-robed older divines prayed us through the psalms in rich baritones and lovely Oxford accents. They smiled and seemed to take joy at this sparsely attended service–just three of us tourists. After the benediction, I expected them to disappear quickly, but the priests turned and greeted us with warm smiles and handshakes, and genuine joy at our presence. The crypt had been an nice escape, but the prayer service warmed my heart.

A number of years ago a professor of mine asked her students to list the most influential people in our lives. I struggled to write names, focusing on ideas and concepts and their authors more easily. When I shared the list with the class, my professor made an observation I had completely missed: they were all writers, theologians or mystics who had been dead for a few centuries. I knew them and their ideas only through books.

Today, if I were to make the same list it would be completely different. My close friends. My parents. Pastors and mentors who have impacted me. Professors who have shared their passion for learning and faith.  And now, even for the authors on the list, I’m more interested in how they lived out their ideas in their lives.

Pursuing a PhD has had an unforeseen result. For most of my life, books promised a world in their pages where I could live, in relative solitude. The intensive study of the past 7 years burned that promise out of me–there are still books into which I can disappear, but not with the same abandon. And theology books simply don’t thrill me as they once did (I used to literally drool over them.)  The magic of the printed word comes now through its ability to engage life–beautifully, visually, poetically.

I have feared this new way of life. Prayed before my wall of books to love them again with the same passion and joy.  Wondered where I failed somewhere along the way to becoming a scholar.

But I think something else has happened, maybe more wonderful and amazing than I can yet see. Before, books were my idol. Now, the ones that matter, have become icons, pushing me through their pages to engage with life directly. I have kept going to them, on some days, demanding to experience God, on other days, to escape,  and the incarnated Emmanuel has wooed me to life and love, to living people, with all the risk, speechless pain and beauty.

Thirteen years ago, I had a brief glimpse of this and recorded it in my journal:

“But, turn to Me in life, in the world, with all it’s confusion and chaos and stark beauty and tragic pain, and love Me there. Love Me where it will hurt you, love Me where the beauty will break your heart, love Me in the confusion, love Me with your life, love Me as a living sacrifice, not as a dead one, love Me as a failure and see My glorious redemption.”

The challenge of the dissertation may be, at the very last, a call to commit and engage life deeply, and rather than look to a wall of books for experience, simply live and write about it.

I’ve gravitated to reading books in crypts and pondering life in cemeteries, alone with my journal. On the other hand, this practice–no, discipline–of writing for others, be it a blog or a dissertation, cannot be a solitary act. It requires more than putting on the trappings of depth, but a willingness to till the loamy soil of living, plant myself deep into relationships, and bring the fruit to the page.

Reading has often been my escape. Writing is calling me to grow.


(photos from my recent trip to Ireland: Quin Abbey, Inishmore cemetary, Ballyhannon Castle, and the Seven Churches, Inishmore.)

May 22 2012

Your Brain on Stress

Recently, I had the privilege of speaking at the Bethany Presbyterian Church’s Women’s Retreat on spiritual practices, the brain, and living in the unforced rhythms of grace.

One of the main practices I encouraged was breathing deeply.

Little did I know that my own practice would get a serious testing just a few days later.

Recent advances in neuroscience and brain imaging has radically expanded our understanding of how the brain works.

God has fashioned our brain with two important systems, the one we are most familiar with, fight or flight, and the second lesser known companion, pause and plan.

We know what fight or flight feels like. Historically, the saber-toothed tiger would give chase and the much slower human would call upon an instinctive burst of energy to run like hell or stand her ground and fight.

The brain in fight or flight mode suspends all future considerations in favor of immediate escape from death. No planning is necessary unless it’s the instantaneous calculations for running to a safe tree or cave, or taking good aim on the attacker.  Immediate gratification options that would dispel the threat and fear are valued, as well as risk-taking behavior that might increase chances of escape.

Fight or flight narrows the world to a pin-point of focus: survival.

The problem is that the brain cannot tell the difference between a physical life or death threat from a hungry tiger, or a metaphorical threat in a  stressful work situation, family conflict, gridlock traffic, overwhelming to-do lists, or worries about finances, health, or family members.

And even more challenging: these stresses are not dependent on the hungry tiger losing the scent or getting tired of the chase. The human brain was built to jump into fight or flight mode for brief periods. Now, we are a nation constantly running or fighting.

A person under constant stress finds it incredibly difficult to plan for the future, because the brain is focused on the present perceived danger. Instant gratification–choosing anything that promises to dissipate the stress– will win out over choices toward long term goals.  Willpower becomes non-existent. Risky behavior becomes the norm.

The other, lessor known system, pause and plan, is the brain’s long-range vision. It encourages and supports choices toward future goals. It says no to instant gratification and strengthens willpower.

How can we move from fight or flight into pause and plan?

Take a few deep breaths.

It may seem simple but breathing deeply and slowly for a few minutes will shift the brain into the pause and plan system. The stressor will still be there, but the brain will be able to move from a focus on surviving a predator’s attack to figuring out longer term strategies for dealing with the situation.

A few months ago, I realized I needed to move from my lovely apartment into a less expensive living situation. Jobs are scarce these days and I decided I’d rather start living creatively now, than get into a difficult position down the road. I’ve been incredibly blessed to find a room with a family from my church.

Leaving the Contemplative Cottage (at least, this incarnation of it) has been painful.  Just after the women’s retreat and  a few days before a wonderful bunch of friends came to help me move, I paced my half-packed apartment fearfully and couldn’t decide what to do next. My brain had taken off-line any ability to plan or make long-range decisions, and all I wanted to do was hide under the covers. The moving tiger was in full chase.

Once I became aware of what was happening, I sat down and spent ten minutes just breathing, slowly and deeply. The shift was striking. Suddenly, I could plan again. The future didn’t seem like a black hole. My heart rate slowed. My anxiety lifted. There was still sadness that I needed to move and concern over not having a job, but it was coupled with a feeling of confidence that I could face it and whatever comes next.

I was also able to feel connected to my community and to God’s presence.  In fight or flight mode, I often find the world becomes very lonely, narrow, and small.  Whatever is chasing me seems bigger than God. Shifting into pause and plan opens up the world, reminds me I’m a friend, well-loved daughter, and member of the Body of Christ, and helps me trust God’s provision and redemption of my circumstances.

The next time you find yourself chased by a metaphorical tiger, stop and breathe deeply and slowly for ten minutes. At first, you will probably think it will do no good, but that is just the fight or flight system at work, negating long-term strategies. Give it time, and the tiger will slowly fade back into the jungle.

For more about the brain, willpower, and the challenges of living under constant stress, read The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It, by Kelly McGonigal.


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